BMCR 2006.05.40

Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World

, , Prostitutes and courtesans in the ancient world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 360 pages).. ISBN 0299213137 $24.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Faraone and McClure’s edited collection of articles about ancient prostitutes and courtesans is an excellent assemblage of modern scholarly research on the topic. The study of prostitution in antiquity has gained great momentum in the last decade, and this book examines the surviving ancient data in a variety of genres and from an impressive number of theoretical perspectives. Its major flaw is one of timing. The conference that spawned this collection was in the spring of 2002, and much research, including by the authors of the articles themselves, has contributed to and altered our understanding of ancient prostitution in the last four years. In such a rapidly burgeoning subgenre, it is a pity that several of the articles have been superseded or rendered less useful by more recent work. Nevertheless, this book would make a fine addition to the shelf of any scholar interested in ancient gender and sexuality or for an advanced undergraduate course focused on such issues. It includes three major sections, on sacred prostitution, legal and moral discourses on prostitution, and a somewhat eclectic grouping of papers related to the idea of the prostitute as comic character.

The first section, on “Prostitution and the Sacred,” consists of four articles. Each of them largely focuses on debunking the formerly popular concept of “sacred prostitution.” Martha Roth’s chapter offers a rather hasty dismissal of the Mesopotamian evidence for this practice. If Babylonian sacred prostitution remains such a commonly accepted myth in the modern imagination, it deserves a lengthier rebuttal. Roth does not, for instance, fully discuss the ramifications of the word “istaritu.” However, particularly for classicists, the focus on Mesopotamian texts offers a welcome glimpse into another source of information about the ancient world, as well as suggesting fruitful ground for comparative analysis between different ancient cultures.

Phyllis Bird’s chapter on Israel discusses the use of the idea of the prostitute as a symbol in the Hebrew Bible. Prostitutes and adulteresses appear in the Bible more as representations of a “promiscuous” Israel seeking after foreign customs and religions than as actual sex workers. At the same time, the few individual prostitutes often reverse cultural expectations; Bird notes that the two quarreling potential mothers in the famous judgment of Solomon (1 Kings 3:16-28) are in fact prostitutes, which explains their lack of husbands or any clear familial structure. As with Roth’s chapter, this piece is particularly useful for classicists looking to gain more insight into Near Eastern treatments of female sexuality.

Catherine Keesling’s chapter on monuments to prostitutes in Greek sanctuaries focuses on the literary descriptions of the monuments erected by the famous hetairai Rhodopis and Phryne. She analyzes the descriptions of these monuments as simultaneously transgressive and traditional in their design. Keesling suggests that self-conscious distinctions between conventional worshipers and hetairai were made both by the women themselves and by the later authors who commented on their monuments. This theory implies an awareness of social segregation for prostitutes which is echoed in the analyses of legal and literary texts presented in later sections of this collection.

Stephanie Budin offers a shorter version of her ongoing research (and forthcoming book) arguing for a lack of any evidence for actual sacred prostitution in the ancient world. Budin’s main thesis claims that sacred prostitution was used as an accusation to tarnish and stigmatize alien cultures or groups within society, rather than serving any actual social function. Many of her individual points are extremely sound and highlight the prejudices imparted into the ancient texts by previous generations of classical and Near Eastern scholars. “Pallake” is certainly not a general term for “sacred prostitute,” as Budin convincingly shows, and in many cases the argument about “sacred prostitution” has been advanced by circular reasoning and questionable translations (90). However, Budin, at least in this chapter, fails to address a variety of other references to connections between prostitutes and religion, including virtually all the sources regarding Magna Graecia and North Africa. The effectiveness of the chapter is also weakened by a lack of distinction between “sacred prostitution” – sex performed for pay as part of a religious duty – and any other potential connection between prostitutes and temples, including the simple bond of deity and devotee.

The second section, on the legal, economic, and moral aspects of ancient prostitution, provides a useful summary of some of the recent work on these issues. Edward Cohen’s economic distinction between slave “pornai” and free “hetairai” suggests an intriguing reason for the variation of terms used to categorize ancient Greek prostitutes. The thesis could be improved by more extensive examination of comparative and modern evidence about prostitutes. Cohen argues that in the modern world there is a “single, albeit intractable and undefinable concept of prostitution,” neglecting the existence of escort services, not to mention the presence both of pallakes in ancient Greece and long-term paid mistresses in modern society (96). In general, nearly all the papers in this section might have benefited from the study of modern theories about prostitution and its effect upon women.1

Allison Glazebrook’s study on the representation of prostitutes in Athenian oratory offers a brief if coherent glimpse at the use of the hetaira as a negative moral symbol contrasted with the virtue of the figure of the Athenian wife. She correctly notes the importance of the Athenian citizenship law in restricting marital possibilities for metic women in Athens, although this is not a particularly new point in the study of Athenian women. This is also one of the articles most affected by the lack of reference to recent scholarship; Debra Hamel’s 2003 book on the courtesan Neaira (to quote just one amongst a multitude of other relevant recent publications) goes into much greater depth on this specific topic.2

Susan Lape’s paper similarly addresses the use of the prostitute trope in oratory, focusing in this case on male prostitutes and the accusations leveled by the orator Aeschines against Timarchus, a speech more often read for its views on same-sex relationships than for its comments on prostitution. As she notes, a strong psychological connection is made between prostitutes and slaves, supporting the economic association between these two social roles suggested by Cohen.

Thomas McGinn, one of the foremost current scholars on Roman prostitution, offers here a brief glimpse into what became his 2004 book, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World. While his proof of the lack of evidence for moral zoning in Pompeii or Rome is more elaborately laid out in that text, this article is worthwhile on its own for addressing the influence of Christian doctrine on late Roman laws and attitudes about prostitution. There is surprisingly little mention of the impact of Christianity elsewhere in this volume, and McGinn convincingly reminds us of the enormous sea change in prescriptive attitudes towards sexuality in the Late Empire. He suggests that any practice of governmentally-mandated “red-light districts” is due more to Christian mores than to imperial Roman strictures.

Marsha McCoy focuses on everyone’s favorite Roman Republican femme fatale, Clodia Metelli, and more specifically on Cicero’s characterization of Clodia as a prostitute in the Pro Caelio. McCoy also discusses the role of the courtesan Chelidon in the Verrine Orations, a case where insinuations that Verres was overly influenced by a prostitute were used to undermine and effeminize him. While she is correct to emphasize the unprecedented nature of such an attack upon an elite woman like Clodia, McCoy does not fully prove her argument that such accusations had permanent and enormously damaging effects upon the reputations of their victims. She asserts that we do not hear of Clodia in the public arena after 56 BCE, hardly a rare circumstance for a Roman woman. However, Marilyn Skinner has long since established that Clodia continued to participate actively in at least the business and social life of Rome well into the 40s BCE.3 Clodia even conducted real estate negotiations with her supposedly hated enemy, Cicero, in 45 BCE, suggesting that she did not slink off into some sort of ignominious retirement at Baiae. (Att. 12.42.2) The lack of any reference to Skinner’s article in either the footnotes or bibliography is distressing and weakens the value of the analysis in this chapter.

Kelly Olson’s chapter on the contrast between, on one hand, the legal and literary symbolic use of the female toga to characterize prostitutes and adulteresses and, conversely, the lack of evidence for any consistent, real distinction in costume among Roman women provides a valuable and badly needed summation of the surviving evidence. As with earlier chapters, the gulf between the symbolic use of the concept of the immoral prostitute and the everyday historical practices of Roman society becomes evident. The line between Roman matronae and meretrices was much more fluid than the legal texts and speeches would have us believe. Olson also usefully lists all the literary and legal references to “feminae togatae.” The only weakness of this piece, one that is addressed in her longer, 2002 version of the article in the journal Fashion Theory, is the lack of any archaeological or artistic evidence supporting her theory. As with McGinn’s chapter, this is a brief taste that leaves the reader wanting more.

The final section of the book gathers together several papers considering the prostitute as theatrical or literary character, a somewhat inchoate but probably necessary theme in a volume of this kind. Chris Faraone acutely explores the dichotomous representations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as both virginal priestess of Athena and as a bawdy witch-madam trying to control a bevy of lusty brothel-girls. Rather than narrowly defining Lysistrata as either matron or whore, Faraone demonstrates the power available to ancient women in both roles and their potential overlap, as well as creatively drawing on some of the arguments from earlier chapters. The only surprise is that he does not further discuss the representation and possible inspiration of Aspasia, a historical figure who was still alive at the time of the play’s premiere, since Greek literary discourse similarly represented Aspasia as both promiscuous madam and wise philosopher-matron.

Sharon James compares the male anxiety over prostitutes’ behavior through the lenses of two far-flung Roman works, Plautus’ Asinaria and Ovid’s erotic poems. While this article keenly situates the Roman criticism of prostitutes as based on concerns about male control and dangerous female autonomy, stylistic flaws damage its value. James’ lengthy discursive endnotes, which are absolutely necessary to any understanding of her paper, require frequent flipping back and forth. The lengthy quotes are unparalleled in the rest of the book and do not especially aid her argument.

Anne Duncan’s discussion of the relationship between actors and prostitutes in Rome must be read as a response to Catherine Edwards’ 1997 article on the same topic in Hallett and Skinner’s collection Roman Sexualities.4 While both pieces address the issue of the symbolic transgressive behavior of prostitutes and actors, Edwards adds gladiators, a category which Duncan unconvincingly dismisses from her argument with a vague distinction between “fakery” and “reality.” Gladiatoral combat was as much staged as real, and, in any case, the main question here is the reaction of Romans to these types of public figures. This work would also be strengthened by more references to the other chapters in this book; in any discussion of Roman comedy the Greek models need to be addressed, as in James’ chapter, and McGinn would certainly be surprised to hear of the presence of a red-light district in Rome (254). In general, this chapter is of use as a summary of the surviving texts of comic portrayals of prostitutes, rather than offering an analysis that might seriously challenge the theoretical structures proposed by Edwards.

The book finishes, a bit abruptly, with Kate Gilhuly’s study of the puzzling and problematic “lesbian” dialogue in Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans. She intriguingly looks at possible origins for the names and characterizations of the central trio in this text, drawing on philosophy and comedy as possible inspirations. While I am unconvinced that Plato set out to demean and criticize Aristophanes in the Symposium, Gilhuly’s larger argument about the lesbian as a symbol of marginality in Greek and Roman discourse offers some real insights into the reasons for Lucian’s amusing story, as well as into more general ancient views on the nature of female sexuality.

All in all, this is a somewhat uneven collection, and given the delay in publication some of the bibliographic omissions and lack of revisions are particularly surprising. Nevertheless, it is remarkably free of technical errors and, while it may be superseded by the many forthcoming new publications in the field of ancient gender and sexuality, for now it offers a wide range of ideas and theories on the general topic of ancient prostitution. This book heralds a general trend in its focus more on the use of prostitutes as a symbol in ancient discourse than on the lives of actual ancient sex workers. A collection that combined both perspectives might be particularly useful in the future and would enable yet more fruitful collaboration and cross-pollination between literary theorists, historians, and archaeologists.


Laura K. McClure, Introduction

Prostitution and the Sacred

Martha T. Roth, “Marriage, Divorce, and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia”

Phyllis A. Bird, ” Prostitution in the Social World and the Religious Rhetoric of Ancient Israel”

Catherine Keesling, “Heavenly Bodies: Monuments to Prostitutes in Greek Sanctuaries”

Stephanie L. Budin, “Sacred Prostitution in the First Person”

Legal and Moral Discourses on Prostitution

Edward E. Cohen, “Free and Unfree Sexual Work: An Economic Analysis of Athenian Prostitution”

Allison Glazebrook, “The Bad Girls of Athens: The Image and Function of Hetairai in Judicial Oratory”

Susan Lape, “The Psychology of Prostitution in Aeschines’ Speech against Timarchus”

Thomas McGinn, “Zoning Shame in the Roman City”

Marsha McCoy, “The Politics of Prostitution: Clodia, Cicero, and Social Order in the Late Roman Republic”

Kelly Olson, “Matrona and Whore: Clothing and Definition in Roman Antiquity”

Prostitution, Comedy, and Public Performance

Christopher A. Faraone, “Priestess and Courtesan: The Ambivalence of Female Leadership in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Sharon L. James, “A Courtesan’s Choreography: Female Liberty and Male Anxiety at the Roman Dinner Party”

Anne Duncan, “Infamous Performers: Comic Actors and Female Prostitutes in Rome”

Kate Gilhuly, “The Phallic Lesbian: Philosophy, Comedy, and Social Inversion in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans“.


1. See, for instance, Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn, “A Theory of Prostitution,” Journal of Political Economy, 110.1 (2002) 181-214.

2. Debra Hamel, Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

3. Marilyn B. Skinner, “Clodia Metelli,” TAPA 113 (1983) 281-3.

4. Catherine Edwards, “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome,” in Roman Sexualities, edd. J.P. Hallett and M. Skinner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) 66-95.